BLS6: Horizons

Most high school seniors, as they approach graduation, are encouraged to pick a ‘senior quote’. Some short saying or exerpt from classic literature that provides inspiration, and is paired with your still awkward picture in the yearbook.  Nerdy kid that I was, equally obsessed with the ocean and with adventure in the early 2000s, I didn’t choose the poised words of Eleanor Roosevelt, or the hopeful determination of Dr.  Martin Luther King.

No, I chose the eternal wisdom of one Captain Jack Sparrow:

At least it wasn’t the one about the rum. (Photo source )

Now, many years later, as I sat down to write this blog, that quote came to mind.  I feel “horizons” could have been the unofficial theme of this weeks’ BLS6 conference—from literal horizons that hatchling sea turtles use to orient towards to the sea, to horizons of technology. As you’ve read in the previous blogs–all the research projects presented, new types of tags discussed, new database collaborations, new ideas developed over coffee—each of these has been another step towards a new horizon of bio-logging. So with the conference drawing to a close, I thought I’d share two particular stories from this week that stuck with me on this theme.


Kitchen timers and dynamite

Gerry Kooyman was fascinated by diving marine mammals in the 1960s. On a trip to Antarctica, he wanted to better understand how these animals dove underwater—how deep did they go? and how long they could hold their breath? Since these animals lived under roughly 3 meters of ice,  to answer those questions, Gerry first had to make a hole in the ice so that he could observe and handle the seals when they came up for air. After dynamite proved…unsuccessful…he found that chainsaws worked much better. Now that they had access to seals, he still needed a device that would give them information on their diving depth and time. With a stroke of genius, he created the very first time-depth recorder—which at the time was little more than a modified kitchen egg-timer and pressure gauge.

Time-depth recorder (TDR) and attachment to a Weddell seal in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. (A) Core components of the TDR, including a modified 60-min kitchen timer (from Kooyman, 1967). (B) Kooyman attaches the TDR to a surfacing Weddell seal (photo credit: Charles Drebek). (C) Peter Koerwitz inspects a tagged Weddell seal hauled out on sea ice (from Kooyman, 1966). Photo and caption from: Goldbogen, J. A., & Meir, J. U. (2014). The device that revolutionized marine organismal biology. JEB, 217(2), 167-168.

From lab to field

Fast forward 20 years. While some cases of bio-logging invention happen in a eureka moment, most require a more careful hypothesis, development, testing, and refining process (aka trial and error). Take the case of the blue fin tuna. Scientists knew very little about these ocean giants but needed to answer the ‘where do they breed? Where do they go?’ types of questions that are required to make effective fisheries management decisions. Through partnerships with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, researchers were able to design, test, and modify several tagging techniques under controlled conditions. From these efforts, we now have tags that using JUST light levels can calculate fish locations anywhere in the ocean, even if they don’t come to the surface–revealing that some tuna swim from the east coast of the US to the Mediterranean Sea!

A pop-up tag like this can be used to track a tuna for over up to a year at sea!

I wanted to share both these stories because they embody the adventure, curiosity, and collaboration that I love about science, and the essence of this conference. Gerry Kooyman was a true pioneer of the field of bio-logging, and the field has come a long way since. Just as our cell phones have gone through an immense transformation over time—so has our bio-logging technology. Through many previous strokes of genius (/madness), we now have novel ways to monitor the oceanography in remote environments, to track the echolocation of bats and whales, and to predict and mitigate the impacts of human activities and climate change. Heck, we can even track your pet cat!

Eumetopias jubatus. A captive Steller sea lion (Sugar) chasing a ~300 g rainbow trout on 7 May 2008 at the Alaska SeaLife Center. Arrows indicate data loggers on (A) the head and (B) the torso. These attachment locations were used during 2007 and 2008, although in 2007 trials, a cable connected a remote head accelerometer sensor to the torso data logger.                            Photo and Caption from: Skinner et al. (2009).

Likewise, working at the ASLC, I’m now part of an organization that has a long history of serving in both a research and a technology development role for the bio-logging community. As seen in the example picture above, through collaborative work between our husbandry, veterinary, and research teams, our scientists and animals have helped test a variety of telemetry devices–revealing important information about Alaska’s marine animals and ecosystems along the way. Who knows where the next decade of biologging will take us!

The biologging society is just starting, and looking forward to the decade to come! You can join HERE

So, as the conference wraps up, I feel honored and humbled to consider myself part of the team of biologists, engineers, computer scientists, aquariums, universities, businesses, and just mad geniuses. For it is our collective imagination, inspiration, and unrelenting desire to solve problems that will keep us chasing that never ending horizon for years to come.

Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop

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